Black Mass – Deep chracterisation reveals there is no honour among theives. (Film review)
Black Mass has been accused of unsuccessfully mimicking its predecessors such as Goodfellas. It’s a tedious and lazy comparison that again reinforces the over-hyped adulation of Scorsese and further entrenched that film in particular as the ultimate bench mark for gangster film perfection. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Goodfellas, but it can’t defend its accusations that characterisation is thin and that it relies heavily on menace to cover up glaring irrationalities in plot and character motivation. Film perfection it aint, and probably its greatest legacy is to distort and taint our ability to critically view any film made after it that dares to approach similar material in a different way – something the genre desperately needs. Such is the peculiar and annoying influence of Scorsese and I suppose, the hyper Hollywood movie machine. Black Mass is a far more interesting film when examined away from the turgid comparisons with other gangster films, and compared to the writing of Jez Butterworth (one of the credited writers for the film) who has made a great success of seeking the human character under the stereotype. As director Scott Cooper reveals in this interview, he was fully aware of these impending comparisons and never sought to usurp the throne held by Scorsese, but rather made a film about human beings in what he claims is more drama than gangster style film. If one must seek comparisons, Black Mass is more like a modern version of the underrated Michael Mann film Heat. Only Cooper is more contemporary and for me, that makes Black Mass more successful.
Jez Butterworth is an interesting writer, with a strong capacity for deep characterisation. His 1995 play Mojo (probably the best comparison with Black Mass) is a fast paced gangster play about a small gang trying to decide how to act upon waking to the grisly discovery that their leader has been sawed in half (literally) by his rival gang leader. The strengths and weaknesses of each character become intensified in the ensuing squabble as they try to work out what to do. Butterworth’s highly acclaimed play Jerusalem, based on a the real life of an out of work plasterer who lives in a caravan on the outskirts of town, is a brilliant commentary on the shadows of capitalism, poverty and crime. It is Butterworth’s ability to sink deeper into character and from there expand to a universal that generally reveals a systemized inevitability, that make his plays so strong. The tragedy in Black Mass, and indeed what makes it such a shocking and compelling film, is the loyal men duped by the gangsters code of ethics that, as the film reveals, are more shattering than the jail sentences each is forced to endure.
It’s a marvellous commentary on the shifting morality within organised crime that is usually run by a sociopath, not street-philosophers as those earlier films imply. Cooper strips away the famous glamour that Scorsese assumed was the appeal, and reaches deeper into what drives these gangs, coming up with the old chestnuts of race and self-protection or the right to bare arms. Whitey Bulger built his empire on an unwavering demand for loyalty so the revelation that he was an FBI informant was all it took to strip him of his support. But tangled up in that revelation was the FBI’s admission it used Whitey Bulger, so Bulger was able to gamble on the self-preservation of the FBI to continue his illegal operations. As the film states repeatedly, he was a sociopath, a man incapable of caring for those around him, even as he demanded the highest loyalty and care from them. It’s the men around him, the trap they weave for themselves and their quiet, penetrating observations that are brought to the fore. These knit a perfect pathway to the inevitable awakening regarding the leader to whom they have given everything, and the horrifying realisation that they have made a terrible mistake with their lives.
However, this is no morality tale. Jez Butterworth is too good a writer and Scott Cooper has too strong a grasp on his material for that clumsy error to occur. Black Mass asks and answers the question, who are the men who follow a man like this, and who are these FBI agents that collaborate with a man like this? How do these things happen? Worse than their jail sentences is the humiliation experienced in their fall. Black Mass deals powerfully with the notion of honour amongst thieves, asks where this honour comes from and is it ever fully justified? It reveals these men in their own tragedy while refusing to judge their behaviours.
Much has been made of the casting of Black Mass (the least interesting aspect of the film) because Johnny Depp wears makeup, and makes a “return” to serious acting. He’s competent without being electrifying, a balance that works perfectly given the cultural nature of the film. His much hyped make up almost always works, and he does look a great deal like the man himself. Man of the moment Joel Edgerton is more interesting. His childish dependency on his old hero is pathologically dumb as is his ego driven insistence on FBI collaboration at the films start. Edgerton plays his role as a man of unwavering conviction, blinded to unpleasant truths by faith in a longed for friendship. He is a trgaic character, and one of the films strengths is his slow, painful demise, revealed to the audience ahead of the character. A shout out goes to Dakota Johnson who does a great deal with a very small role (!) creating a character so compelling we miss her for the rest of the film. Black Mass isn’t a perfect film, but it has some subtly interesting things to say about the nature of criminals and their bond.